ITHACA, N.Y. — One little house is creating a lot of debate among members of Ithaca city’s Common Council.

The full body of alderpersons is set to vote tonight on two different proposals for the future of a house located at 401 Lake Street in Ithaca’s Fall Creek neighborhood. One is to put the house up for sale; the second proposal is to tear it down and add the newly-created open space to the Ithaca Falls Natural Area.

First, the background. The house at 401 Lake Street is a modest 808 square-foot, one-bedroom dating from the early 1900s. The house has been vacant for a number of years; the previous owner, who also owned a large, vacant lot next door, moved out of the home, marketed it as a rental for a while, eventually stopped paying taxes, and the county seized their Lake Street properties. The house has been boarded up since the above photo was taken.

Normally, the county puts tax-foreclosed properties up for auction, but the city has the ability to procure the property prior to auction if they pay the tax bill. The city occasionally exercises this right with land of special interest – for example, this year, the city is weighing a proposal to acquire a couple of tax-foreclosed land parcels on and near the city’s waterfront, which could be sold through the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency, or used to develop waterfront amenities, or another use as the city deems fit.

In the case of 401 Lake Street, which sits close to the north rim of Ithaca Falls, the city decided there was a strong interest in acquiring the property from the county in order to prevent development so close to Ithaca Falls. To do so, the city would have to pay off the delinquent tax bill, which was $18,382 for the house, and $6,991 for the vacant land next to it. The Natural Areas Commission supported its purchase, the Planning and Economic Development Committee voted to send the action to Council in May 2015, and the Common Council gave its full approval last June.

What was not decided, however, was what to actually do with the house that the city just purchased.

Two Competing Proposals for 401 Lake Street

In trying to decide what to do with the house, two propositions have been put forth for review – demolishing it, or selling it.

In an email, councilwoman Josephine Martell (D-5th) wrote “there was some dissent on the committee and it was also requested that an additional resolution be prepared to go before May Council putting the house up for sale. A similar process took place at the April City Administration Committee meeting (the other subcommittee) a week later. As a result, two resolutions about 401 Lake [Street] will be heard at the Council meeting. One proposing demolition and one proposing the house be sold.”

More specifically, if the parcel were to be demolished, the land would then be rezoned as park space, included into the Ithaca Falls Natural Area, and held in perpetuity by the city for public use. It also comes with a sizable price tag, mostly for the cost of demolition and asbestos abatement – a similar demolition a couple years ago cost about $25,000, not to mention the permanent loss of a taxable property. However, by keeping the property and demolishing the house, it allows public use of the land and adds to the city’s park space.

If the parcel were to be sold, the city gets the benefit of the sales revenue and puts the century-old house and land back on the tax rolls, but there’s the possibility of development, mostly on the vacant parcel to its north. 401 Lake Street is on such a small lot, 40 feet by 60 feet, that any additions would have to be approved by the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals. Also, according to a memo from IURA Director of Community Development Nels Bohn, the property’s location in a “Recreational River overlay zone” limits lifetime residential expansion for the house to an additional 500 square feet.

Further to that, Bohn wrote “I am not aware of any feasible or appropriate public use for this structure”. The house needs asbestos removal and has water damage, but is considered salvageable – the county estimates its value at $40,000.

So in the short of it, you have different pros and cons depending on what one deems the best interest. The city’s comprehensive plan promotes protection of sensitive natural areas, which demolition would support. But it also supports maintaining neighborhood character and encouraging affordable housing, which a sale could support if sold with affordable housing restrictions. There is no right or wrong answer, but there are different takes on the matter.

“I believe the most effective way to protect the Ithaca Falls Natural Area is for the city to own both parcels and to designate them as parkland,” said Dan Hoffman, the city’s former attorney, in a letter read to the Council members last year.

In interviews with the Ithaca Journal, at least one councilperson is in favor of selling the house, one is in favor of demolitions, and others are still undecided. But they will have the opportunity to hear both sides tonight, and possibly bring this particular debate to a conclusion.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.